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Summer Travel Outlook: Long Lines, Jammed Flights

If “summer travel” triggers images of beachside idylls and Disney theme-park thrills, you likely drive rather than fly to your summertime vacation spots. Because summer air travel is a very different picture, indeed.

With the country’s commercial air-transport system stressed to its limits even during off-peak periods, the uptick in summer flyers pushes it to the brink, and beyond.

Those already-long security lines begin snaking out the terminal doors. Those already-full flights are jam-packed. Those already-chaotic baggage-carousels threaten to tip into full-fledged riots. Travel stress escalates into travel hysteria.

That’s been the case for the past few summers, and the outlook for summer 2016 is no different.

According to Airlines for America, the trade group representing most American airlines, U.S. carriers will accommodate 231 million flyers between June 1 and August 31, 2016. That’s an increase of 4 percent over 2015 and the most ever.

Other summer 2016 predictions from A4A:

Top Five Destinations

  1. Los Angeles
  2. Chicago
  3. Denver
  4. Las Vegas
  5. Atlanta

Five Busiest Airports

  1. Atlanta
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Chicago
  4. Dallas
  5. New York/JFK

More Is Not Better

Even factoring in some increase in capacity, from more flights and larger aircraft, summer load factors (the percentage of seats occupied) will average close to 90 percent. And on more popular routes, flights will be consistently full. That’s a sure recipe for more discomfort.

Getting to your flight will be extra-stressful as well, as there’s no imminent fix expected for the security checkpoint bottlenecks that are already the focus of national media scrutiny, as hours-long wait times cause travelers to miss flights and airlines to delay departures.

Summer Survival Guide

What can you do to mitigate the discomfort?

Enrolling in TSA’s Precheck program costs $85, and gives trusted travelers access to expedited security-clearance lines at participating airports. There’s never been a better time to sign up.

As for the flight experience itself, short of splurging for a first-class ticket, there’s no magic bullet. Leverage your elite status to upgrade, or cash in miles for premium-cabin flights. Book an aisle seat whenever possible, and fly on carriers like JetBlue that feature an extra smidgen of legroom. Perhaps pay extra to upgrade to economy plus. But mostly, it’s a matter of grinning and keeping your claustrophobia in check.

Summertime. The livin’ may be easy, but the flyin’ ain’t.

Reader Reality Check

Are you prepared for the summer travel crush?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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